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September 15, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ J S Sai in Bapatla and Chirala

Caste is supreme in Bapatla

''Come in thousands, come in thousands. Our Telugu Desam Party president and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu is coming.'' A rickety party jeep, carrying garish yellow TDP flags painted with red bicycles, tried to spread a blast of excitement in Chirala, a coastal Andhra town.

The jeep kept repeating the announcement, as if it was competing with the party-song-playing cassette player in spreading cacophony. The Congress jeep too did not want to lag behind. ''He seems to be the only one in the country who is working (obviously referring to Naidu's claims that he works 20 hours a day,)'' the Congress song went.

But Chirala, located on the busy Madras-Calcutta rail route and known for its bustling textile market yards, paid little attention to the blare, battling as it was with the slush and drizzle.

The monsoon seems to have already devoured Naidu's 'world class roads', and the people had to wade through ankle-deep slush. And, taking a rickshaw, was no better with the drizzle creating irritating dew on one's body while the wheels crashed into innocent-looking puddles which had hid huge potholes.

Only a quarter of the government high school ground was occupied when Naidu's helicopter circled over our heads. "Why is he going back?" asked an umbrella-wielding party worker. "No, he is only announcing his arrival. He will come soon," replied another worker.

A few more pleas urging the crowd to flood the venue followed. "Where is the crowd?'' asked a TDP worker. ''I feel very disappointed.''

Then came several trucks bringing in yellow-cap sporting party supporters… A little later came the blare of the sirens…

The chief minister, sporting a bright yellow shirt and white trousers, arrived in an open-top jeep. He waved his characteristic 'V' sign at the people.

As he climbed the dais, there was a burst of firecrackers. ''Stop those firecrackers, stop those firecrackers,'' Naidu urged.

He then spoke about his relentless efforts for the state's development, his policies and welfare measures.

Praising the women for their steadfast support to his party, he said, ''On the poll day, don't cook anything at home! Make only coffee, and then go out to vote! This will ensure that men would join you at the polling booths!''

And then came a shocking statement. ''I have fielded several of your weaver caste candidates in the state including film star T Sarada from the Venkatagiri (located near Nellore, it is known for its world famous silk sarees) assembly constituency.

A hi-tech chief minister making such a statement in the Bapatla Lok Sabha constituency, which is known for its volatile caste equations, came as a shock. Why was he playing up caste factors when he has been claiming that he should be judged on the basis of only one factor -- performance? Was he trying to exploit Bapatla's caste considerations?

Only caste seems to matter in this small coastal Andhra town, unlike several of its neighbours like Kavali and Ongole. Caste may matter in these towns too, but never has it affected social harmony.

Consider this for instance. Ongole's Dubagunta gave birth to the 1993 anti-liquor agitation, but it continues to respect and vote for the Magunta family (the late liquor baron and Lok Sabha member Magunta Subbirami Reddy was known for his welfare schemes). But such respect for good intentions eludes Bapatla.

One incident highlights its obsession for caste considerations.

Several people had accompanied well-known film producer and TDP leader D Rama Naidu on the day he filed his nomination for the Bapatla Lok Sabha seat. The crowd stayed back after Rama Naidu's departure, shoved all TDP flags into the nearby gutter and started raising pro-Congress slogans! They even installed Congress flags!

''TDP men favouring the Congress?'' one might be shocked. But Bapatla knows better. The TDP workers and leaders were now waiting for the Congress candidate for the Bapatla assembly constituency, Mupalaneni Seshagiri Rao!

''They were backing him only because he belongs to their caste,'' said P Koteshwara Rao, a septuagenarian advocate who made his political debut in 1962. He had lost that assembly election as a Swantantra Party candidate because of such caste considerations.

However, K S S Prasad, a chartered accountant in Bapatla, said the trend could be traced to 1985, when the media started focusing on ticket distribution and caste factors.

Another advocate, B Chandra Mouli, too felt that caste conflicts could be traced to the 1985 assembly poll, when people used to urge TDP founder Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao to give tickets to 'their people'. ''As a result, every leader started demonstrating that he controls such and such an electorate because of their caste… Moreover, with the emergence of NTR, leaders of other dominant castes felt threatened.''

''Though such factors had been working as early as the 1960s, the dirty turn came in the 1998 Lok Sabha election, when Seshagiri Rao vowed to defeat the TDP's Bapatla nominee, Ummareddy Venkateswarulu,'' Koteshwara Rao said. ''The latter had lost to the Congress's Nedurumalli Janardhan Reddy in the election. But Seshagiri Rao will face the music now with the Kapus ganging up against him.''

''Now things have come to such a pass that even polling agents are selected on caste basis,'' said Prasad. ''No party, for instance, dares to post a Kapu in a Brahmin area… If you are running a business, you can't think of such factors. Only efficiency matters. The youth should be ashamed of this trend. I feel sad for them as they now seem to make friends only among their community. The older people have ruined Bapatla.''

Even Dalits seem to be divided. While the Malas might vote for Congress candidate J D Seelam, the Madigas might oppose his candidature. ''Madigas feel the Malas have been cornering most of the reservations intended for the scheduled castes (15 per cent),'' said Koteshwara Rao. ''They have been demanding proportional reservation on the basis of Mala-Madiga population.''

Before jumping into the fray, Seelam, who hails from the nearby Kusulur village, quit the Indian Administrative Service. A senior official of the Karnataka cadre, he was then railway minister C K Jaffer Sharief's secretary. His last posting was as director of the Karnataka social welfare department.

P Suresh, a railway employee, said Seelam would win as the dalits have now resolved to win the seat come what may. Dalit Christians, who number 335,000, comprise a third of the 1.08 million-strong electorate in the constituency. Besides, there are about 125,000 other minorities in Bapatla.

To what extent is the Karamchedu -- Rama Naidu's native village, where 14 Dalits were massacred in 1985 for drawing water from an upper caste water tank -- incident responsible for the present conflicts? ''People have forgotten the incident,'' said B Chandra Mouli, nephew of the late Maharashtra governor Kona Prabhakar Rao who represented the constituency in the state assembly for three terms between 1967 and 1978.

''The root cause of the problem is that parties have been opting for leaders with either financial power or caste-based support,'' said Chandra Mouli. ''Then prime minister V P Singh and his Mandal report contributed to the divide. Moreover, Dalits, with their 300,000-strong population, seem to have developed a ghetto mentality due to the caste conflicts and the financial sway of a certain community.''

''I feel it is one's insecurity that drives one into bottlenecks like caste,'' said Prasad. ''If you have merit, you do not have to worry about such issues…''

''I feel that top leaders should implement the preamble of the Constitution,'' said Chandra Mouli.

''People should give preference to political thinking over caste considerations,'' said Koteshwara Rao.

Incidentally, Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson M Venkaiah Naidu was defeated by Congressman S Benjamin in the 1989 Lok Sabha poll in this constituency.

As for Chandrababu Naidu's development efforts, Chandra Mouli said the chief minister had got the canals in the area cleaned up so that farmers would have better water supply. ''Only one road was laid -- the Guntur-Baptla-Chirala road. One solid rain in July, and there is no trace of it now. Eight engineers have been suspended, and the inquiry is still on.''

U Kamala Rao, a bank employee in Bapatla, quipped, '' 'Less work, and more publicity' seems be his policy.''

K Suryanarayana, 77, who works in a shop in Nidumbrolu after retiring from a textile co-operative society, blasted this correspondent several times. ''What did he do for five years? Now he is saying 'I will give you this… I will give you that…' You have been sent (by him) to find out who we are voting for… Go to all the villages, and find out… Whoever gives money, they will vote for them… I am old. You are young. See who is doing what for the people. People will also vote for those who do something for them. NTR did a lot for us. Is there anybody in this whole world who would give us rice at Rs 2 a kilogram?

''NTR had imposed prohibition. Why did Naidu lift it?'' he asked.

Then he talked about the farmers's woes. ''Why did they sell useless seeds?'' he asked. ''We are poor, and can't question the authorities. So many bags of seeds have gone waste.''

With Bapatla being divided on caste lines, Rama Naidu might find it difficult to win the seat. ''If he spends money, he will win,'' says Radhakrishna Muthy, an unemployed middle-aged man in Chirala. Maybe that is the only thing Bapalta values more than caste!

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